Written by: Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi
Directed by: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, and Tammy Blanchard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
There is nothing to be afraid of.
The Invitation opens with a couple (Logan Marshall-Green & Emayatzy Corinealdi) winding through the dusky Hollywood Hills before they plow into a coyote. Dismayed that the fatally wounded animal is drawing its last, ragged breaths before him, the man tentatively grabs a tire iron from the trunk, intending to end its misery. He hesitates before striking the coyote dead, grimly setting the stage for a film that somehow grows even bleaker as it descends more deeply into the darkest recesses of human nature. Watching it unfold is to realize this opening scene is less an ominous overture and more of a fugue, one that introduces the intertwining themes of suffering and mercy that haunt the characters in The Invitation.
We learn that the (almost certainly) ill-fated couple is headed for a mysterious dinner party being thrown by Willís (Marshall-Green) ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), who has recently reemerged from seclusion with a new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). Haunted by the tragic passing of his young son, Will finds himself understandably alienated by the entire ordeal, as the lavish glass house turns into something of a crucible, forcing him to walk down the same halls and peer into the same rooms where his son once played. Even though heís surrounded by lifelong friends, Will canít shake the feeling that he should be anywhere else other than hanging out in his old (and now strange) house with his weird ex-wife and her kind of smarmy old manóand this is before the arrival of their new, mysterious friends they met while on a spiritual retreat in Mexico.
The Invitation is the sort of film thatís immediately unsettling and never relents. Its gathering of old college friends for a swanky get-together in the wake of tragedy vaguely recalls The Big Chill, only thereís a very real possibility that all of these people might die (meaning itís automatically much better than The Big Chill on principle). Everyone here feels somehow broken in some way, be it by obvious tragedy or just the grind of life itself: in this sense, The Invitation seems most expressly concerned with the horrors of growing older and feeling the vitality of youth slip away. Itís a reality that involves unreliable spouses, awkward dinner table conversations, and toiling away at unfulfilling jobs just to achieve some semblance of status.
Thereís rightfully little vibrancy to the proceedings, as director Karyn Kusama deploys low, almost sinister lighting in concert with intimate, suffocating framing. At times, The Invitation feels like a drawing room mystery set inside the most posh (but still pallid) funeral home ever, its collection of damned souls mingling with both the living and the dead. Weíre perched as flies on the wall witnessing these peopleóall of whom seem like shades of their former selvesówrestle with memories and regret, particularly Will, who has buried himself behind long hair and a beard to conceal his perpetual anguish. If The Invitation is unbearably intense, itís only because Kusama taps into the utter awkwardness and alienation of a situation where one awry phrase (or confounding story) is capable of pushing the latent tension to a boiling point.
Kusama is patient in allowing The Invitation to simmer, however. An unmistakable fog of doom hangs thick in the air but it slinks around, slyly contorting with every plot development, be it a furtive glance or a chilling story about a dead spouse that sends one of the partygoers fleeing for her car. You canít tell if the twisting, turning script is being coy or not when it introduces what must be a red herring in a bizarre video capturing an actual death on camera; for whatever reason, Eden and her oddball friends canít comprehend why the rest of the guests wouldnít want to watch something so uncomfortable, and itís the first sign that something is seriously off with this situation.
Even though this moment provides the first substantial clue about what exactly is going on in The Invitation, it hardly reveals the filmís full hand. Forgive the obvious comparison, but itís more akin to that moment on a roller-coaster ride when you hear the final click at the peak of the ascent: you know youíre about to plunge straight down, but youíre unsure about the winding, wending route. Like any effective thrill-ride, The Invitation even allows for a moment to breathe a sigh of relief before promptly whiplashing the audience back to a stark, brutal reality during a knock-down, drag-out climax that pushes the latent savagery to the forefront.
Reserving the eventual bloodshed until this moment is a masterstroke in restraint. The phrase ďslow burnĒ is tossed around a lot, but The Invitation earns it in remarkable fashion by threading every bit of its mounting tension through genuine character moments. Itís deceptive in that itís light on incidentótypically, a film like this might at least knock off a character or two early on to make the danger palpable, but Kusama creates unease through off-putting interactions, most of them involving John Carroll Lynch and Lindsay Burge as Edenís mysterious guests.
Lynch is no stranger to oddball roles, and this performance unlocks the potential of his specific brand of creepiness with an unassuming, disarming front. His presence reads like bad news but his words attempt to insist otherwise; the horror is found somewhere in the chasm between his actions and his lack of self-awareness. If heís the powder keg threatening to take the whole party down in flames, then Burge is the one gleefully lighting the matches, constantly stirring up drama with a life philosophy cut from a cross-section between free love and New Age mysticism. Arguably the most slippery of the bunch, Burge playfully acts as a wild card whose unexpected pathos throws a wrench into the bloody finale. Like everyone else, she, too, desperately attempts to cling to something that might bring order to the chaos of her life, even if it requires a pound of flesh.
Less slippery are the two most indelible characters forged from this crucible of grief and guilt. Two exes who appear on the opposite end of the spectrum of their suffering, Will and Eden gradually reveal that theyíre more akin to opposite sides of a same coin. Neither has actually confronted nor resolved their grief for a dead son whose ghost practically lingers in the house, playing with dinosaurs at a table in their mindís eyes. No matter how much Will insists he has moved on with a new relationship, his vacant-eyed, thousand-yard stare betrays him; likewise, Edenís solace in a new religion has resulted in an act that leaves you wondering if sheís trying to convince her friends or herself about her newfound happiness. Rather than actually reconciling their loss, one has turned to self-destruction, the other to something even more sinister.
The way these two circle around each other and trade blows becomes a larger metaphor for interpersonal dynamics in general. What transpires in this bleak house is a microcosm for mankindís tendency towards destruction, as the emotional barbs boil over into chilling examination of the extreme measures people take to alleviate suffering. Some would consider the heinous violence of the filmís climax to be an act of mercy no different than the one Will performed during the filmís opening scene.
Itís this insinuation that lingers with a stunning final shot that magnifies Will and Edenís despair to nigh-apocalyptic levels, suggesting that there are so many suffering coyotes waiting to be bludgeoned and scraped off the road. Even worse, there are plenty people more than willing to oblige.
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